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Dr. Talitha LeFlouria talks with TRNN about the New Orleans sanitation strike where workers were fired and replaced by prison labor from nearby Livingston Parish, and the historical roots of the exploitation of prison labor.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore, Maryland for The Real News Network. We have been following this COVID-19 epidemic, or pandemic that is, for the last several months. And prisoners have been used in many ways to make masks, to dig mass graves in New York, to supply bleach and disinfectant agents for people outside. Most of which they haven’t been allowed to use.

But just recently in Louisiana, something I think that’s kind of disturbing just happened. Garbage workers protesting about the conditions that they have to work in were trying to get protection, masks, gloves, et cetera. And they went on strike and the consequences of it was they got fired and that resulted in them taking prisoners and replacing the garbage workers that are on strike.

So joining me today, Professor Talitha LeFlouria author of Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South. Professor, thanks for joining me.

Prof. Talitha L…: Thank you for the opportunity to be here.

Eddie Conway: So Talitha, could you give us an update on what’s happening in New Orleans with the striking garbage workers and the use of prison labor?

Prof. Talitha L…: Okay. So recently New Orleans sanitation workers went on strike and they were fired and they were essentially striking because they wanted PPE, personal protective equipment, and they wanted hazard pay. As we understand, garbage collection or working in the sanitation industry is very dangerous right now. And people are constantly being exposed to infection. So they wanted some compensation and some protection, but they did not receive. And so this practice of firing free laborers and replacing them with prison laborers, this is not anything new. This is not a novel practice. Prisons and jails have long used incarcerated workers to do jobs that were either too dangerous or too undesirable for free laborers to do.

And so rather than improve working conditions for free laborers, oftentimes, starting actually after emancipation with the inception of a system known as convict leasing, which I’ll discuss in a moment, free laborers were fired all the time and replaced with prison workers. And this practice, again, of exploiting prison labor for profit has its origins in a system known as convict leasing, which developed after emancipation in the Southern States.

So essentially this system involved the hiring out of state prisoners to private contractors for a fee. And it’s a system that disproportionately affected African American men and women because over 90% of the jail and prison populations of the post-Civil War South consisted of African American men and women who were disproportionally incarcerated. And essentially the penal system was used as a way to strip Black people of their rights to freedom, rights to citizenship for Black men, rights to participation, primarily affected the poor, but it was definitely a way of taking away Black people’s mobility and newfound freedom.

And so this prison labor practice, it didn’t just affect African American men. As we understand today, majority of the prison population consists of African American men, but Black women have historically and in the present been represented in disproportionate numbers. And so in the convict lease system, for example, of Georgia, which is a state that I study, African American women made up nearly 100% of the female prison population. And they were leased in this system in the same way that men were, they were forced to work in brick yards. They were forced to work in mines. They were forced to work in lumber mills. They were forced to work on plantations. They worked as lumberjacks. They worked as cooks, as washerwomen.

They did every kind of labor that she could add earthly imagine, right? All while at the same time facing sexual exploitation, unwanted pregnancies, death, and essentially the destruction of their lives. And so, if you want, I can speak a little bit more about the effects of this convict leasing system on women and tie the practice of exploiting even incarcerated women’s labor to this larger system of exploitation that we see today? [crosstalk 00:05:41]

Eddie Conway: Okay. And I do want you to talk about that in one minute, but I want to ask you another question. So who’s responsible? Is this Mayor Cantrell, or it’s just the Governor? Who’s responsible in Louisiana for one, firing garbage workers and two, employing these prison labor people? Who’s responsible for that, and how many people are involved in the actual firing? And how many prisoners? You can just give me a round number. And where are these prisoners from?

Prof. Talitha L…: There’s a little bit of confusion around who’s responsible or who’s most culpable for the firing of the sanitation workers. To my understanding, the company has a contract with the City of New Orleans. And so essentially, it seems that the city does have some responsibility. And that all of the responsibility doesn’t necessarily fall on the mayor, but as we know, these are very intricate systems, right? And they’re very layered. And so it’s a little difficult to determine who is to blame. But if you ask me, I would say that it’s the city, I would say that it’s the private company and I would say that the mayor to some extent are all in collusion together.
Eddie Conway: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Where are the prisoners from? Are they from the local jails or the Angola or the state prisons? Do you have an idea of where they’re bringing the prisoners from?

Prof. Talitha L…: So actually I believe that the prisoners are incarcerated in jails and are participating in what is known as work release. And so these are not prisoners from Angola Prison, to my understanding, these are prisoners from local jails who are working under the work release program in the city.

Eddie Conway: Okay. So talk a little bit about the history of this kind of a program and the impact that it has particularly on women prisoners, if you will.

Prof. Talitha L…: Yeah. So as I was saying, this system of exploiting prison labor for profit has its origins in the post-Civil War South. And it has its origins in a system known as convict leasing. So after emancipation every single southern state in the United States adopted this system. And essentially what it involved was the hiring out of entire prison populations by private companies from the state. So the state will lease entire felony prison population to private companies to work in a wide range of industries like the railroad industry and the brick-making industry, in mining, turpentine, the agricultural industry. And it was a practice that disproportionately affected, again, African American men and women who made up the majority of the prison and jail population of the post-Civil War South.

And so, as one would expect, and even as it is today, majority of the prisoners in the system were men, but there were a disproportionate number of African American women who were also incarcerated and exploited and whose labor was exploited under the system. As I mentioned before, nearly 100% of the female prison population of the State of Georgia, which is the state that I study, consisted of African American women who were forced to do the same kind of work as men. So it was not unusual to see a woman working in a brick factory. It wasn’t unusual to see a woman working in a mine or chopping lumber, or in some cases there were even Black women who were forced to work as blacksmiths.

In the case of one woman named Maddie Crawford, Maddie Crawford was convicted of murder. She killed her stepfather, who she claimed abused her. And it’s unclear whether he was physically or sexually abusing her, but she said that she couldn’t take it anymore. So she took his life and the state sent her to a brickyard and she was forced to work in the brick-making industry but to also work as a blacksmith.
There were also women like Ella Gamble, whose story is one of the most tragic stories that I’ve come across in my research. Ella Gamble when she was young was incarcerated for allegedly poisoning her employer and sent to work in not one but three different prison factories and on a plantation. She was incarcerated for 20 years. And during that period of time, she was raped repeatedly. She gave birth to four children in captivity. And when she was finally released from Georgia’s penal system, it was because she had developed cancer of the bladder, womb and rectum, and was of no longer value to state, she could no longer produce labor for the state and so they released her on those terms.

And so there were also thousands of African American prisoners, including women, who were forced to work on chain gangs. These were not people who were convicted of felony crimes, or even major crimes, they were convicted of nonviolent offenses, such as larceny, stealing an orange could result in being forced to work on a chain gang, building a road. And people experienced the most brutal violence that you can ever imagine. And so Maddie Crawford and Ella Gamble just represent thousands of incarcerated Black women, and men, whose labor was exploited by the souther states.

And so this practice of exploitation continues today, as we see in the case of prison laborers who are now working for only 13% of the pay the sanitation workers were making. So for example, incarcerated workers who have replaced sanitation workers only make $1.33 an hour. Okay? And they’re not being offered any PPE. They’re not being offered any hazard pay. And so they’re being exploited. They’re being exploited. But it’s a double edged sword because what’s the alternative? To sit in a jail cell all day long? To be afraid of contracting COVID in an overcrowded cell block where over 100 people are crammed together like sardines?

Eddie Conway: Well tell me, what can the public do to either expose this or put a stop to it? Is there any avenues that the general public can use? Even our audience?

Prof. Talitha L…: Mm-hmm (affirmative) You know, I think there are a number of things that we can do to support incarcerated workers. First of all, one thing that we can do is to join incarcerated workers in their protests against the injustices that they’re facing. The 2018 incarcerated workers strike is an excellent illustration of how incarcerated workers are fighting to stop what many of them refer to as prison slavery. So we can support incarcerated workers by getting more involved. There’s an organization known as the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, and it’s participating in a continuous struggle to combat the injustices that incarcerated workers face all over this country.

And one of the injustices that they’re attempting to address is the denial of a living wage. So incarcerated people are having wealth extracted from their labor, but they’re not even being provided a living wage. And they don’t even have access to jobs when they leave prison or jail. So it’s not as though these occupations are preparing them for future employment.

Another suggestion could be to boycott companies that profit off of prison labor. I believe that here as a recent, many popular media outlets have done a really great job of exposing the various companies that are indeed profiting off of prison. So boycotting those companies to whatever extent that we can and demanding that incarcerated workers be provided a living wage. Those are two ways that we can join in the fight.

Eddie Conway: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Well, what would you say, years ago while I was in prison I, back in the early ’70s, organized the United Prisoners Labor Union, and actually we were adopted by 1199 E the union that Dr. Martin Luther King ended up getting assassinated [crosstalk 00:15:32]. What would you say about prisoners private debt level of prison labor being organized as a way forward? Because obviously it’s about money and if you could get a minimum wage for prisoners, they would no longer be valuable to the state or to the people hiring them.

Prof. Talitha L…: There you go.

Eddie Conway: What do you think about that as a way forward?

Prof. Talitha L…: I think that’s an excellent suggestion, forming prison labor unions. I wouldn’t know much about how to implement that. But as a suggestion, I think it’s wonderful. And if you were willing to say more about how people can organize within the prisons and create unions and how people on the outside can support the creation of those unions, that’s something that I would love to hear and would love to be able to get behind. And I think it’s an excellent suggestion. I think it’s a wonderful way forward. As much as we can do to empower incarcerated workers the better. Because the bottom line is these private companies, these states, they’re making money. I don’t think that this country will go out of this way to incarcerate as many people as it does and to hold people in this system of captivity if it wasn’t profitable. I just don’t buy this narrative that, “Prisons are not profitable.” Well, yeah, they are to the companies that exploit prison labor.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Well, it looks like that we might be in for a long winter and I don’t know what’s going to happen with the garbage workers. But perhaps you can kind of like keep an eye on it and get back in touch with us and let us know if there’s new developments and it’s things that we can report on. We would like to make sure it’s being covered.

Prof. Talitha L…: I will be glad to do that.

Eddie Conway: Okay, so thank you for joining me.

Prof. Talitha L…: Thank you for having me. This was a pleasure.

Eddie Conway: Okay. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.

Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Cameron Granadino, Ericka Blount Danois

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Eddie Conway

Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.